Wednesday, March 24, 2010

channeling ada: catherine wolf, master communicator

Happy Ada Lovelace Day! Today is the day when the blogosphere comes to life with postings about inspiring women in technology. Now in its second year, Ada Lovelace Day was created by British software consultant and Web developer Suw Charman-Anderson as a way to highlight often overlooked women doing amazing things in the tech world. The event is named after Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician who is often credited with being the world's first computer programmer. You can read more about her on or by watching this short animated biography!

Last year's inaugural Ada Lovelace Day generated several thousand posts worldwide. (In case you missed it, you can read mine, on planetary paparazzo Carolyn Porco, here.) This year, I've decided to profile someone that relatively few people have heard of but whose story really moved me when I first read about her. She is psychologist and researcher Catherine Wolf.

Starting in the mid 1970s and spanning some three decades, Wolf's career has focused on trying to get computers to understand how we humans communicate. As a research psychologist at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, she designed and tested various interfaces between people and machines: speech-to-data, handwriting-to-type, and more. She spent much of her time thinking about how verbal cues translate into meaningful information, and she helped IBM develop new technologies like an automated audio teller program that would allow users to do their banking over the phone. In all, Wolf holds the title to six patents and more than 100 journal articles and textbook chapters on the subject of human-computer interaction.

Since 2003, however, Wolf has had an entirely different relationship with the technologies she helped develop. In the late 1990s she was diagnosed with the progressive motor neuron disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS—more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a heartbreaking illness; it causes progressive loss of motor functions until, one by one, the body's systems shut down. But instead of tuning the world out in the face of such a devastating fate, Wolf has challenged her disease head-on and even used it to uncover new ways for ALS sufferers to communicate long after they've lost the ability to speak.

These days, Wolf counts herself lucky to still have the use of her eyes and some of the surrounding muscles, for it's her eyebrows that help her connect with the outside world. Bound to a wheelchair with almost no volunteer muscle movement and no ability to speak, swallow, or even breathe on her own, Wolf is nevertheless able to type, talk, go online, and even check her Facebook status with the help of various computer programs and a headband that senses when her eyebrows move.

Writing out a single word may take several laborious minutes, but Wolf is grateful that she can still write poetry and connect with her family and with others who struggle with ALS. In fact, last spring, in what she considers her proudest professional publication, Wolf co-authored a paper introducing a new scale of abilities in people with ALS that described finer-scale skill sets than doctors had previously recognized in ALS sufferers. Is that impressive, or what?!

In our everyday lives, most of us have a hard enough time expressing our thoughts and feelings even with our full set of faculties. But to learn about someone like Catherine Wolf is to know what it means to be a part of the interactive human world. On this Ada Lovelace Day, I applaud Wolf's contributions to the field of communication technology, and I stand in awe of her unyielding efforts to reach out in the face of such trying physical circumstances. I urge you all to read more about her in this stirring profile by Beth Schwartzapfel in the Brown Alumni Magazine.